On a Friday morning, the New York Philharmonic began a concert with a new clarinet concerto. There are hundreds of clarinet concertos, with new ones being written all the time. And yet when we think “clarinet concerto,” we’re apt to think “Mozart.” The Philharmonic programmed a concerto by Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer who has long lived in Berlin. She studied with the Hungarian master György Ligeti.
In the Philharmonic’s program notes, Music Director Alan Gilbert said, “There’s something so unique about the way she combines traditional sounds and instruments to create something utterly fresh and modern, while at the same time staying true to her cultural heritage.” By “cultural heritage,” I take it Gilbert does not mean Monteverdi and Bach. But why shouldn’t he? The Philharmonic’s program annotator, James M. Keller, noted that the concerto calls for thirty-two different percussion instruments—including spring coils, a washboard, and fishing reels. He then wrote, “Listeners will appreciate that Chin’s choices of instruments are not amusing gimmicks but rather the carefully considered route to the soundscape she imagines.” Uh-oh. Usually when someone preempts criticism in this way—“Chin’s choices of instruments are not amusing gimmicks”—the potential criticism has merit. After reading the program notes, I assumed the percussion was gimmicky.
Before giving the downbeat, Maestro Gilbert gave a lecture. This kind of lecture used to be a pre-concert lecture. Now they do it after the lights dim, so that people have no choice: You will sit through the lecture whether you want to or not. You will be made to eat your peas. As usual, Gilbert essentially repeated the program notes. He said that Unsuk Chin was “really unique.” (In the program, she was “so unique.”) Onstage with Gilbert was the morning’s soloist, the Finnish clarinetist Kari Krikku. He echoed the conductor in saying that Chin was “really unique.” It used to be unique was unique. Now there are gradations.
Gilbert said that he wanted the audience to find its way into the composer’s “language.” Her concerto was “incredibly graspable,” he said. Allow me to translate: You’d better like it. He told us that the concerto was a “showpiece.” Couldn’t we have heard that for ourselves? What’s the point of coming to a concert? To hear the music, right? He commented on the size and diversity of the percussion. For all of these devices and gadgets, he said, “you never have a sense of the gimmicky.” Uh-oh. Now I was doubly worried, or doubly sure.
He had Kari Krikku play a theme from the concerto’s second movement. Gilbert said this theme was “haunting” and “unbelievable.” It would have been better to hear this theme in the course of the concerto—to encounter it for ourselves, as the piece unfolded. Finally, Gilbert said, “Let’s play.” The concert started fifteen minutes after its scheduled time.
I had been primed for a concert, even hungry for a concert: There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a concert, is there? The orchestra tunes, the lights dim, and away we go. But the lecture killed the mood. And the opportunity to discover a new piece for oneself was diminished. Someone had told you what to hear and what to think. I guess some people like this. In the bad old days of political incorrectness, we might have said, “They’d make good Germans.”
Incidentally, at the beginning of a play, does someone come out and tell you what to watch for and what to think? Are actors asked by the director to recite key lines? If not, why not?
Chin’s Clarinet Concerto is in three movements, and each of them has a heading. The first movement’s heading is a three-parter: “Mirage – Fanfare – Ornament.” Those words must have greater meaning to the composer than to a listener. This first movement has many contemporary hallmarks: spooky jungle sounds, squirmings, and jazzy riffs, among others. The jazzy riffs are especially suited to clarinet music. They are almost obligatory. This movement certainly has energy and boldness—but the music is rather measure by measure (which is almost a Shakespeare title). What I mean is, each measure on its own is interesting, but what do the measures add up to? The first movement struck me as so much sound design, with virtuosic riffing. I wondered whether the concerto would ever be played later. There are so many clarinet concertos, gathering dust. Why not program that of Gerald Finzi (1949), a fine composition?
Chin’s second movement holds attention, or at least it did mine. Called “Hymnos,” it’s a bit like a Ravel slow movement, spookified. The music might be the soundtrack of a haunted house. The last movement is headed “Improvisation on a groove.” Purcell had his “Evening Hymn on a Ground,” Chin has her “Improvisation on a groove.” The music is a bit like a Ravel fast movement—the Presto of the G-major piano concerto, for example. It is noisy and propulsive. I’m not sure it signifies much, but it is a skillful romp. The concerto has a surprise ending, with the music simply vanishing into thin air . . .
I must say, the pre-concert protests about the percussion were right: It is not gimmicky, but rather sensible and effective. Also, Krikku, Gilbert, and the Philharmonic gave the concerto a splendid reading (so far as I could judge the playing in a new work). And for all my griping about Gilbert’s mood-killing lecture, he did tell a nice story. Once, he was down in a subway station, where a man was playing the saxophone. The man said that, if people gave him money, he’d stop.
The Metropolitan Opera was host to a recital. A recital in this house is a rarity and an honor, and the recitalist on this afternoon deserved the honor: He was the great German bass René Pape. Of course, management need not think in terms of honor and history and all that. They should be thinking, “What will put fannies in the seats?” To my knowledge, Pape had given only one other recital in New York, and that was in 2009 at Carnegie Hall. That was his first recital ever (and he was forty-four).
If you had drawn up a program for Pape to give, your program may have turned out much like the one he in fact gave at the Met. The material was suited to his voice and temperament—to some of the qualities for which he is noted: authority, gravity, beauty, command. There was a curveball in this program, however, about which more in a moment.
The program began with the Gellert-Lieder of Beethoven. They are sometimes known as “Six Holy Songs.” In any case, they are Opus 48, and they set texts by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, a German poet who lived from 1715 to 1769 (the year before Beethoven was born). These songs are hardly ever performed, which is odd, for two reasons: 1) They’re superb, and 2) they’re by Beethoven. In our time, Jessye Norman has probably been the foremost champion of them. Perhaps people shy away from them because they are religious? (The songs, that is.)
At the Met, the first song, “Bitten,” did not begin well. That was because the pianist, Camillo Radicke, was mousy. He was almost apologetic, in this big house. Radicke was again mousy at the beginning of the last song, “Busslied”—a song that should begin boldly and stay bold. Otherwise, he acquitted himself decently. As for the bass, he was in good voice, but not great voice: The voice and the singing were a little rough, with dents and scratches here and there. But Pape was good enough. He brought his dignity and authority, as you would expect. But his singing was just slightly stiff or careful, as though he had not “internalized” the songs (pardon the cliché). He used sheet music, as he would throughout the recital, and appeared to cling to it.
After Beethoven came Dvo?ák, namely the Biblical Songs, Op. 99. There are ten of these, and they set Psalms. Pape sang the songs in Czech, as is de rigueur now—required. In former times, many singers sang their Dvo?ák in German. I myself would have been happy to hear Pape sing the Biblical Songs in his native language, but he went native—sang them in Czech, I mean—and sang them well. He sang them just as he had the Beethoven: with the same dignity and authority, but was he truly comfortable in these songs’ skin?
The first half of the recital was good, but the second half was very good. Pape began with the curveball, Three Shakespeare Songs, Op. 6, by Quilter—Roger Quilter, the English composer who lived from 1877 to 1953. I did not see that coming. Pape was completely alive in these songs, and so was Radicke. I wonder whether Pape sings Let Us Garlands Bring, the wonderful cycle by the aforementioned Gerald Finzi, a contemporary of Quilter’s. This cycle sets a couple of those same Shakespeare texts (e.g., “O mistress mine”). To end the printed program, Pape sang Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Pape is a magnificent Boris Godunov—Mussorgsky wrote that opera, as you know—and he sang the songs and dances with that same general ability.
At Carnegie Hall in 2009, he sang two encores. The first was the most common encore of voice recitals at large: the Strauss song “Zueignung” (which is a song of thanking). The second encore was “Some Enchanted Evening” (which Pape sang unidiomatically but graciously and pleasurably). At the Met, he started with “Zueignung” and ended with another song from an American musical: “If Ever I Would Leave You” (Camelot). He sang his Broadway with plushness and heart. He sang “Zueignung” the same way, actually.
The Berlin Philharmonic opened Carnegie Hall’s season, then stayed for several more concerts. One of those concerts had two Schumann symphonies on the program, with a new work in between. On the podium was the Berliners’ longtime music director, the Englishman Simon Rattle. The new work was by an Austrian, Georg Friedrich Haas. He teaches at Columbia. His new piece is dark dreams—which follows a fashion. I mean, the title does. For the last ten or twenty years, small letters have been all the rage in music. all the cool kids are doing it. i look forward to the passing of this fad.
Before we heard dark dreams, there was no lecture. The New York Philharmonic might have found that weird. Sir Simon and the orchestra simply played the piece, as though there were adults in the room, instead of kindergartners. Carnegie Hall’s program notes contained a very interesting comment: “Haas hopes that ‘one surrenders oneself to the pull of sounds and emotions and that the music communicates directly with the listener without having to explain very much.’ ” That is a mature and laudable attitude.
dark dreams begins with shudders. We are in a horror movie. Then there are howling winds. You cannot fault Haas for untruth in advertising: The music is obviously true to its title. To relieve the horror, we get some celestial harps. But then there are yawps and claxons and other things. If this piece is sound design, it is sound design with a purpose: to spook. The piece is loaded with percussion, although I don’t believe there are fishing reels, as in Unsuk Chin’s Clarinet Concerto. To quote an old line of mine, “Contemporary music has more pots and pans than Williams-Sonoma.” By and by, there is prolonged tapping on a woodblock (I think). This is quasi-mesmeric. The piece is not only horrific but psycho. It builds into something huge. Then it wants to resolve itself, or seems to. There is a nice bassoon solo—followed by chimes of doom. Then there is a nice double-bass solo—followed by more chimes of doom, sounding like a death sentence. Then there is a nice tuba solo—and then nothing. The tuba has the last word. Has that ever happened, in the history of music? Has the tuba ever had the last word?
Haas has produced a clever composition, a worthy exercise, but I’m not sure it can bear its length (around twenty-three minutes). The friend sitting next to me said, “What did you think?” I said, “I liked it, and I’m glad it’s over.” I would be happy to hear it again—after which I would probably have the same reaction.
Very, very interestingly, there were boos in the hall—boos mixed in with the cheers. This is rare in America. Booing is for Europe, particularly for Italian opera houses. I am of the school that says you always applaud—and if you didn’t like the piece or performance, you applaud less robustly. The booers of dark dreams made the rest of the audience applaud more loudly. The air of controversy in the hall was rather exciting.
Those Schumann symphonies, which began and ended the program, were No. 4 and No. 3 (nicknamed the “Rhenish”). About Sir Simon, I could write for several paragraphs, and it would come down to something like this: I did not like much of what he did, but he is a smart and able guy, and knows what he’s doing. The Berlin Philharmonic is an entity, a performer, unto itself. The orchestra does not have a weak link, but the horn section, led by Stefan Dohr, stands out. Fortunately, the Schumann symphonies are horn-filled, and this is particularly true of the “Rhenish,” which is a virtual hornfest. Dohr & Co. were astonishing.
The Met revived Verdi’s Macbeth, in the 2007 production by Adrian Noble. This production updates the action to sometime in the twentieth century—the World War II era? In any case, there is a Jeep, I believe. There are also guns, which makes me wonder, Why would Macbeth go to the trouble of murdering Duncan with a dagger—such a bloody mess—when he could just pump a bullet or two into the kingly head, lying uneasily? The Met’s current Faust is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico: Faust is a nuclear scientist. Yet there is the usual swordfighting. Would Oppenheimer have pulled a sword on Teller? (It’s true that the latter fought for a shield—a nuclear shield.)
A conductor of Macbeth must give the music tautness, tension, and momentum. Flabbiness or laxity kills Macbeth. And Fabio Luisi, conducting for the Met, was superb. This is a heavily choral opera, and the Met’s forces came through. The title role was sung by Željko Lu?i?—who seems to be the go-to Macbeth of our time. He sang the part under Levine at the Met in 2007, and under Muti in Salzburg in 2011. Under Luisi, he was solid, secure, and aware. He sometimes sang beautifully, and he always sang within himself—not straining or forcing. You could not fault him, except perhaps for a lack of dynamism.
Mainly, you will want to know about the missus—Lady Macbeth, sung by Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano. This role is lowish, often sung by mezzo-sopranos: and Verdi indeed put pressure on Netrebko’s bottom. But what I (and others) have said of her for years was true on this night. Instead of going back years, I could go back to last month, when I discussed Netrebko’s Leonora, in Verdi’s Trovatore, in my “Salzburg Chronicle”: “Netrebko’s voice seems to be getting darker and more Slavic by the hour. It is not remotely Italianate. Some of her singing was indistinct, fuzzy. Her intonation was not always secure. But as I routinely say: Her musical IQ and theatrical IQ are off the charts. She was brilliant. She can also sing the character’s coloratura bits, not just the dramatic material.” Yes. The dark and smoky Netrebko is especially suited to Lady Macbeth. Her singing was sometimes not pretty, but it was always gutsy and Verdian. “La luce langue” was not Netrebko at her most compelling. But it was good enough, and her Sleepwalking Scene was a model of control: of vocal, mental, and theatrical control. Everything about the opera was more interesting when she was singing. I found myself waiting to hear her sing again. Since the day she emerged, people have remarked her Callas allure, and such an allure was evident in her Lady Macbeth.
Netrebko’s voice is dark, the opera is dark, and Lady Macbeth is dark. For that matter, the soprano’s hair is jet-black. In this production, they put her in a blonde-bombshell wig.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 3, on page 50
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